Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Social Etiquette at Work

By Thomas Kochman - 10.09.2009

What prompts this blog is a complaint by an Asian friend of ours about a work place situation where he presented himself in front of two white male associates who were bullshitting about personal stuff and they continued to talk as if he wasn\’t there. Compounding his sense of indignation was that what they were talking about was personal while what he wanted to talk about was work-related, which, in his mind, should trump the personal –after all, isn\’t everyone at work primarily supposed to be working?

Apart from the possibility that racial and ethnic bias may also have factored into the way the white men reacted–would another white male associate who approached them be similarly invisible?– there are also matters of culture and social etiquette here which tend to be less obvious, so let me discuss a few of those.

White men don\’t think that others are going to create a pathway for them so they have to do it for themselves. Each U.S. white man is \”an army of one\”, as one of the reviewers of our book Corporate Tribalism so aptly put it. The etiquette is \”I do for me and you do for you\”. Asian etiquette and that of most of the world is built more around \”I do for you and you do for me.\” Also, when an East Asian stands up to present themselves in front of others at work (or in front of the mike to speak at a meeting) he or she expects others to recognize them. In the U.S., however, it is the one who speaks up who gets the nod. This ties into another cultural rule around turn-taking: U.S. mainstream folks assume the floor is theirs to be taken, while East Asians wait to be given the floor. U.S. culture favors those who push themselves forward (\”God helps those who help themselves!\”). East Asian culture values modesty and considers those who don\’t listen or patiently wait their turn rude (\”Empty vessels are noisy!\” God gave you two ears and only one mouth!\”)

Compounding all of this for white guys is our sense of entitlement bordering on hubris. This means that I think what I have to say is more –or at least as– important as what anyone else has to say. There is also a cultural piece about talking and listening. Lou Harris, a pollster, said of U.S. folks generally, \”Americans love to talk and hate to listen.\” This is shown by how we listen which for many of us is just waiting to talk. I don\’t know how much of \”Diversity U.S.\” that includes, but it definitely describes U.S. white guys, especially when we\’re interacting competitively, which, as Jean Mavrelis says, is practically all the time. For us to really listen, you have to hit us over the head with a \”two by four.\” Until then . . . .

Who said getting to win-win was easy?

One Response so far

I’d like to lend credence to the embarassing truth of
the white male. Your article introducing personal
matters in the workplace is the polar opposite of the
situation my wife and I encountered last week. In a
personal setting we experienced an obnoxious
businessman oblivious to his rude behaviour and
everyone in his presence. We were dining in a quaint
victorian style restaurant, linen clad candle lit tables,
soft music, idyllic ambiance. Except for the moranic
white male drowning the entire atmosphere with his
cell phone nonsense. He was quite full of himself and
appearantly wanted all to know of his success. I wish I’d had a “two by four”.

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